For the second time in three weeks, the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a grant to the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Frank J. Remington Center.
Together, the two grants total more than $1 million for the program.
The most recent grant, a part of the Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance Program sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, awards $778,329 to the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance to disburse to the Wisconsin Innocence Project. The previous grant, awarded in August, provides $249,901 through the Bureau of Justice Assistance Wrongful Conviction Review Program.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project is a legal clinic at the law school’s Frank J. Remington Center that screens applications, investigates and advocates on behalf of wrongfully convicted clients. The new funding will allow the program to continue and expand its work advocating for wrongly convicted individuals in cases where both new DNA evidence and other non-DNA evidence supports the convicted individual’s claim of actual innocence.
“This money reflects both the Department of Justice’s commitment to determining the accuracy of criminal law outcomes, and its trust in the Wisconsin Innocence Project’s effectiveness as a program,” says Keith Findley, co-director of the project.
In particular, the funding will permit the Wisconsin Innocence Project to continue the work of clinical faculty attorneys Ion Meyn, Tricia Bushnell and Peter Moreno, as well as intake worker, Amireh Oettinger, who were all first hired in 2009 under a previous Department of Justice grant.
The new funding also allows the project to expand by placing a new Wisconsin Innocence Project attorney in the State Public Defender’s Office to help public defender staff attorneys screen cases for potential new sources of DNA evidence that can be used to prove innocence early in the litigation process.
The new funding comes shortly after the Wisconsin Innocence Project announced formation of a new advisory board made up of high-ranking attorneys, police officers and scientists. The funding will permit the project to hire staff to support the new board.
“These two events will ensure a more comprehensive approach to the problem of wrongful convictions in Wisconsin,” says Findley. “We will increase our efforts to free those who are wrongly convicted, meet the needs of exonerees and continue to increase accuracy in future prosecutions. In these cases we will also continue our work to identify, where possible, the actual perpetrator.”
The funding will also cover the costs of consultation with DNA experts and DNA testing of biological evidence, as well as travel costs and other office expenses.
According to Findley, the new collaboration with the State Public Defender’s Office, in particular, represents an innovative new approach to using DNA and the lessons from the innocence movement to prevent or catch wrongful convictions sooner, rather than later.